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18th Dec 2022

When your biggest rivals are only over the road

Niall McIntyre

Ballygunner’s second half performance against Na Piarsaigh told Eddie Brennan all he needed to know.

“If ever a challenge was thrown down to a team to say ‘are we still as hungry,'” says Brennan, ” that was it.”

TJ Reid’s interview after Ballyhale’s victory over Kilmacud Crokes told him all he needed to know about the Shamrocks. They had just won a Leinster club title, but only after withstanding a late Crokes’ rally and, listening to the maestro on TG4, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Ballyhale had lost.

Standards vs Standards. The champions vs the kings.

Both teams are in good stead – Brennan reckons Ballygunner have never been better and that Ballyhale, what better team to do it, have improving to do. Both teams have their own compelling reasons and that’s why, forget about the World Cup, this Sunday in Croke Park, set the minds on an all-time club Christmas cracker.

Let the battle begin.

Damien Hayes remembers the build-up to the 2008 All-Ireland club hurling final like it was only yesterday. Of course he does when every time he drives over the bridge and out the road, he sees the sign that tells him Birr is only 20km away.

That sign must remind him of the 2008 All-Ireland club final.

“What I remember about it is we were both training in Ballingarry hurling pitch in Tipperary under lights.

“Our match was on St Patrick’s day, I think it was a Saturday, and we trained in Ballingarry on the Tuesday and Birr trained there Wednesday, us Thursday, and then Birr on Friday. The running joke at the time was that we should have played the match in Ballingarry under lights!

“But look, that was incredible…Sure there were only 20 miles between the two clubs, we’d have friends in Birr, we’d go swimming there, we’d have customers there in the garage, and both of us in an All-Ireland club final…”

There are also 20 miles between Ballyhale and Ballygunner. It was like 2008 all over again when the near-neighbours competed in last year’s All-Ireland club decider, local rivals on the same road, eyeing the same prize, but even though it’s only a semi-final this Sunday, for some reason it feels even bigger.

The obvious one is that this is the third leg of the trilogy. Shamrocks won the first one in 2018, Ballygunner evened things up last year so this has the casting vote. But dig deeper and you’ll find reasons galore.

“Ballygunner would love to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke,” says Eddie Brennan.

“Look,” he adds, “If you win a club All-Ireland, you’ll never care if you’re considered a good team or a great team. You have it in the bag so it doesn’t matter. But for a club like Ballygunner, a club that has won so much in Waterford, my reading of it would be that they want to be seen up there as one of the great teams – which winning back to back All-Irelands would clearly make them.

“They’ve had eight years of falling short, so they’d love another one and they look like men on a mission. They won last year fair and square thanks to that late goal, but it would be thrown at them that they stole it.”

If they stole it, then Ballyhale had it stolen from them. And whatever way you look at it, that has to sting even more.

“The hunger Ballyhale are showing is phenomenal.

“Even the last day, they were under the pump. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team dominate them as much as Kilmacud did, but Ballyhale just make something happen. And look, I’m not sure. Sometimes when you’re in a match, you get a vibe off the opposition whether they’re hurling well or not. And I think Ballyhale got the vibe off Kilmacud that they weren’t right. They were poor in that second half but look, if I was in a Ballyhale jersey, I’d be thinking that these lads were gone now too…”

Then there’s the battle between Colin Fennelly and Barry Coughlan. Fennelly recently criticised Coughlan for an ‘it goes around comes around’ line in his Hogan Stand Speech. The victory speech was otherwise extremely complimentary of Ballyhale but Fennelly said his piece. He felt disrespected and it only adds to the drama that these two boys will be marking each other on Sunday.

“I watched that last year and I kind of went ‘God,’ says Brennan, who criticised Coughlan at the time.

“Maybe Barry had the sentence in his head and it just didn’t come out right. It did sound a tiny bit…but look, Colin referenced it this week, and stuff like that is no harm.

“Colin and Barry are two very competitive men, and neither of them will take a backward step – and you want to see it build up like that. There will be an edge and I think these battles alone will be very interesting.

“Especially this time of the year, the physical exchanges are massive. Hurling at this time of the year isn’t top of the ground, you have to be willing to roll up the sleeves and go in and get hurt.”

Ballyhale are clearly the kings of club hurling. They’re out on their own with eight All-Ireland titles – twice as many as their nearest rivals in the history books, Birr and Portumna – Portumna were the last team that were good enough to have a rivalry with them.

Many fondly remember their 2009 All-Ireland semi-final in Thurles as the best game of club hurling that was ever played.

A Joe Canning inspired Portumna won that one, but when it came down to the score-settler the following year, it was the Shamrocks, as underdogs, who came out on top.

“When we played Ballyhale in 2010,” recalls Damien Hayes, “we were going for three-in-a-row, so there was a thing where we were thinking about them, and they were thinking about us.

“We had beaten them in Thurles in a semi-final but they beat us that time in the final in what you could call a re-match. But you want to play against the best, and the two of them will be revelling in that this Sunday because it is a very similar situation…”

Ballygunner have gradually replaced Portumna as Ballyhale’s next of kin.

Like those games of old were decided by the Fennellys and the Shefflins, the Hayes’ and Cannings –  the performances of Reid brothers (Richie, TJ and Eoin, who’s a sub) and the Mahonys (Mikey, Kevin, Pauric and Philip who all start) will go a long way to deciding this one. In another interesting sub-plot, what many don’t know is that they’re actually related, with their fathers distant cousins.

An ounce of breeding is worth a tonne of feeding.

Whatever about breeding and feeding, this is going to be a feast. As Brennan says, the World Cup can wait.

“We’ll be keeping an eye on the World Cup at the break, but that’s it! For hurling people, this is mouth-watering. You can either go to Croke Park or sit in by the fire and enjoy it.”

And the only surprise we have for you, maybe it’s not a surprise, is that both he and Hayes think Ballygunner will win…

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